You’d think there weren’t any more sports left for African-Americans to dominate, but as sure as you’ll find crime and poverty in underprivileged urban neighborhoods that were transformed into drug infested war zones during the 80s crack era, there will always be another sport for African-Americans to conquer that was once dominated and owned by white athletes.
Tiger Woods took golf and made a mockery of the sport and his opponents for a decade. Serena and Venus have been the lifeline of American Tennis since the late 90s. The Rio Olympic soul swimmers Simone Manuel and Lia Neal are firsts-to-ever-do-it as well.
No need to recap the plethora of African-American athletes in these Rio 2016 Olympics who have set records, raised standards, overcome losing odds and broke ground in various sports.
(Photo Credit: nbcphiladelphia.com)
Props is due, however, for U.S. Women’s water polo goalie Ashleigh Johnson, whose exemplary academic focus and desire to be a doctor led her to sports that are hidden in the rich and elite corridors of exclusive schools, where few African-Americans get an opportunity to explore.
Johnson, a goalkeeper who is the first African American to suit up for the U.S. women’s Olympic water polo team, on Wednesday lead the defending Olympic champions into the gold medal game against Italy on Friday. She embraces her pioneering stature and uses it to bring other sisters into the water polo culture.
“I want people to look at me,” she said, “and see how much opportunity there is and how far they can go.”
The 14-10 win wasn’t Johnson’s usual shutdown performance. She had to be gritty, magnificent and intelligent in order to help the US maintain the lead.
The Americans, led by coach Adam Krikorian, haven’t lost in the Olympics since he took over the Women's Senior National Team in 2009. Since then, Team USA has competed in 15 major FINA Championships and come away with Gold in 12. This includes the 2009 and 2015 FINA World Championships, the 2010 and 2014 FINA World Cups, the 2012 Olympic Games, and seven FINA World League Super Final crowns.
Though loaded with dynamic players and heavily favored after going 8-0 in the qualifying tournament, advancing to this year’s gold medal game wasn’t easy. The U.S. actually trailed for 44 seconds against Hungary (2-1), the only time Team USA has been behind in Rio competition.
Krikorian says his team can expect an even tougher gold medal contest against a quick and feisty Italian group.
"Besides us they have obviously been the hottest team in this tournament," said the former UCLA men's and women's coach. "I watched a little bit of their semifinal and I saw how well they were shooting the ball from the outside. Their defense has been really good and their goalie is playing fantastic. It's going to be a heck of a battle and we are going to have our hands full. No doubt about that."
The Final Piece To A Dynasty
The Sydney Games in 2000 ushered water polo into the Olympic rotation. Team USA wasn’t the powerhouse it is now, but the program has medaled in every Olympics. If they can secure the gold, it will be the first time any team from any country has gone back-to-back in gold medals in women’s water polo.
They have won ten straight Olympic games and look poised to make it 11 on Friday.
The goalie is probably the most important position in any sport that utilizes one. Team USA’s defense is extraordinary and when you have a lanky, quick body like Johnson in net that can move and coordinate a fastbreak in the pool like Magic Johnson on the hardwood, it’s no surprise that teams have struggled to score against the U.S., while Team USA has scorers for days.
NBC's water polo broadcasting duo raved about Johnson's various talents.
“One of the skills I’ve noticed about her,” said broadcaster Paul Brumeister during a 13-3 quarterfinals pasting of Brazil, “...more than the saves, she does a nice job with recognition down the floor and then is accurate like you want a quarterback to be with releasing it."
Johnson is just as cerebral as she is athletic.
Added former nationals player Julie Swail: “She is so able to weed out the field. It’s like having a widescreen verses a tunnel vision.”
And her 6-foot-1 frame allows her to rise up and see everything.
(Photo Credit: dailyprincetonian.com)
Being an African-American woman isn’t the only thing that makes Johnson different than all of the women who have ever played water polo for the U.S. in the Olympics.
Ashleigh is from Miami and she attends a prestigious Ivy League University, Princeton, while the rest of her teammates attend powerhouse D-1 schools in California (USC, UCLA, Stanford) that are more geared towards promoting the athletic value of their universities.
Johnson was originally a 50m swimmer as a kid growing up, but she says it “was boring.” Seeking more action, she discovered water polo at her high school, Ransom Everglades, where she became a four-year starter and helped the Raiders to three consecutive Florida State Championships. She also did her thing in swimming, earning All-Dade County honors twice and leading her swim squad to the state championship during her sophomore season.
Her younger sister Chelsea, a center, also joined the girls’ team, and eventually both of them took their brains and vicious water polo game to Princeton.
That alone isn’t the typical experience for two African-American girls from Miami. Ashleigh has become a barrier-breaker and example of excellence with her educational endeavors and her athletic prowess.
Johnson amassed 45 saves in the 2016 FINA World League Super Final and 54 more in helping Team USA to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games and she’s killing it here in Rio.
Whether she seeks it or not, the magnitude of the Games and the intensity of the moment will thrust her into the spotlight. Regardless of what her all-world teammates do, stopping the ball from flying into the net will be on her. She could easily be the hero or the goat. Either way, the 21-year-old will introduce herself to the world on Friday and if first impressions mean anything, you’re going to be impressed with her.
Here Are Some Facts About Ashleigh Johnson that you probably don’t know, compliments of our friends at usawaterpolo.org
Pregame Ritual: Listening to my favorite music
Favorite Quote: "Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything's different..." -C.S. Lewis
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: Cookies and Cream
Favorite Chain restaurant: Nandos
Favorite Reality TV Show: Dance Moms
If You Had To Make An Ipod Playlist Named After Yourself, What Would It Be?: On the Run
And What Would Be The First Song?: "Ragamuffin" Selah Sue
Where Do You See Yourself 10 Years From Now?: Having begun my professional career
If You Couldn't Play Water Polo, What Sport Would You Play?" Beach Volleyball
Role Model: My Mother Dorothy
Athletic Inspiration: Thierry Henry